The construction of the Basilica occurred in two campaigns: 1806 to 1810 and 1817 to 1821. It was then the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, and it rivaled the U.S. Capitol in size, scale and architectural sophistication. Unlike the Capitol, however, the Basilica never suffered from fire or other major damage so that today it retains much of its original, Latrobe-designed, building fabric, including the exterior walls, dome, and planar interior surfaces. Latrobe’s building technology was very advanced for its time and much of it has survived at the Basilica.
The Basilica embodies Latrobe’s evolving architectural ideas and represents the pinnacle of his architectural maturity. Although Latrobe was the designer of the Cathedral, he received major assistance and support from Bishop John Carroll and President Thomas Jefferson. Carroll, a scion of a wealthy Maryland family, was architecturally literate and culturally sophisticated. He understood that if the Catholic Church was to emerge as a major force in the rapidly developing nation, it needed an architectural symbol that was up to date and definitively American. He realized that the Gothic scheme initially proposed by Latrobe for the Cathedral could represent foreign influences and the Dark Ages to anti-Catholics. For this reason, he turned to Latrobe, the best and most sophisticated architect available in the country and the son of a Moravian minister, to design his great church. The two became friends and Carroll had a major influence on the design of the building. His skills were also essential in getting the building funded and constructed in accordance with Latrobe’s design. Thomas Jefferson’s influence included advice on the design of the dome, and skylights.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, James Cardinal Gibbons, the great religious and social leader, headed the Archdiocese for 44 years. In 1906, Cardinal Gibbons stated that the Basilica was to the church in America “what Mecca is to the Mohammedan, what the temple of Jerusalem is to the Israelite, and what St. Peter’s Basilica is to the faithful of the Church Universal.”
When originally constructed on a hill overlooking the city of Baltimore, the Basilica with its massive dome was an icon visible for miles. Today, it is one of the most significant landmarks remaining from the early nineteenth century in the United States. Because of its great historical and architectural significance, the Basilica has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Government.
View the video, America’s Basilica.